Compost Is Heating Up!

Organic gardening and farming are based on the notion that when we build our soil’s natural fertility through composting we strengthen our environment and grow the land’s capacity to provide us with health.

It’s a pretty good system when you think of it. We throw out scraps, and the scraps become our food. So simple, so elegant, so effective.

At Giving Tree Gardens, we’re such big fans of compost because we’ve seen it’s powerful results. Our gardens and lawns have all quickly filled in and grown with health and beauty using nothing but good healthy compost for fertility.

Last spring Giving Tree Gardens began working with farm partners to build Grow! Twin Cities Urban Farm. At this 12 acre city farm growers with various talents ranging from tomato and potato farming to bee keeping and mushrooming have come together to grow food for urban eaters. This farm space has been the perfect place for us to launch our composting operations.

With consultation from local composting experts Peter Kern, owner of Kern Landscape Resources, and Professor Tom Halbach, from the University of Minnesota, we designed an 85 feet long compost pile. Friends of the farm and Giving Tree Gardens employees set to work transforming our greenhouse and hauling in the compost pile’s base layers of wood chips and landscaping waste.

We now bring in 2 tons of Minneapolis’ finest coffee shop, vegetarian eatery, and beer brewery waste per week to compost inside our largest greenhouse. Composting takes place inside the greenhouse for two reasons. First, composting in the greenhouse means that our pile doesn’t stop cooking all year long.  Second, and more importantly, the fact that we’re heating our greenhouse without any petroleum products means a huge environmental win for everyone involved.

If you’ve purchased food, beer, or coffee from Peace Coffee, Caffetto Coffee Shop, Tao Foods, or Second Moon Coffee Shop, then you are contributing to healthy soils, and local food production at our Grow! Twin Cities Farm.

If you’d like to support more of our farming and composting efforts, there are great ways to get involved. You can sign up to volunteer, donate to the farm, or sign up to follow our newsletter.

Many thanks to all the hard working compost helpers!

Food Is The Second Medicine

Food is the second medicine.

We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.  When our feelings are hurt or we’re down we might say our spirits are low.  When we feel great we say we’re in high spirits.  Our feelings are one reflection or dimension of our spirit that our bodies can easily perceive.  

Our bodies’ condition can affect our feelings and spirit.

  Hormones, wounds, illness, health, touch and sensuality, all of these physical realities in our bodies interact with our spirits to help us feel emotions.  Water and food provide our bodies with the energy to continue hosting our spirits.  It’s common knowledge that our bodies absorb the physical qualities of the food we eat when we digest it and strip it of usable nutrients.  What would happen if folks everywhere started to recognize that the spiritual qualities of the food we eat are absorbed and used by our spirits? 

Have you ever heard someone say that

Love is the most important ingredient

in their cooking?  More then one professional chef has told me this and though I love to cook, I’m not a chef.  By trade I’m a landscaper and composter.  In my experience, the same ingredient that good chefs pour into every dish in order to bring flavor to life is also the most important tool we have for growing healthy food.  Love guides any holistically healthy growing operation.  Love of people, love of Earth, and love of life are a few of the tools that growers can use everyday in their pursuit of health.  


Some folks understand the concept of voting with a dollar.  The idea is that when we spend money on something we are effectively voting to have more of that thing be produced.  By spending our money we are also asking to have more of the spirit or emotional energy that surrounds the production of the items we purchase be created in the world.  This all comes home to our personal feelings and spirits when we ask ourselves a couple of sometimes hard to answer questions: 

Do I know where my food came from?  Do I feel good about the place that my food came from? 

Do I feel like my food is full of healthy living nutrients, or is it possibly tainted with poisonous pesticides?  When we look at food from this angle we see that from the moment we purchase food, it begins having an emotional impact on our own spiritual health and the health of the planet, an impact that we are in control of by the power of our choice.    

When we honor ourselves we feel better. We honor ourselves when we give ourselves those things that are holistically good for us.  We are fully connected in every way to this planet, the condition of the planet’s living systems guide the condition of humanity.  

To honor our environment is to honor ourselves. 

Our ancestors made our lives possible and our descendants will only know life if we leave the world in functioning condition for them.  I’ve heard it said that we did not inherit this world from our elders, instead we borrowed it from our children.  

Prayers can come true if you live them.

If I pray for a healthy environment then I need to work for and make choices that promote health in the environment.  By this way of living I am empowered to work for a miracle, I like that because life on this planet seems like it needs a miracle right now.  

Water is the first medicine and food is the second.

  What is good for us is also good for our home planet.  Clean water and healthy organically grown food have the power to heal our wounded environments, bodies, and spirits. 

Growing A Sustainable City

The city that gardens together grows sustainably together.  Gardening is perhaps the greatest tool for building sustainability that we can all share


Gardens can improve water quality, air quality, access to food, and personal health.  Cities that actively nurture the gardening and urban farming efforts of their citizens reap the benefits of healthy communities.  The nurturing of

sustainable cities

starts with the roots of the community.  Wherever there is a strong activist gardener population, you will find wonderful green ideas and initiatives sprouting up all over!

Rain gardens capture and filter rainwater run-off, community gardens and urban farms grow healthy food for people, locally grown food requires less trucking which keeps our air cleaner, fruit trees on the boulevard provide habitat for migrating birds and meeting places for neighbors.  A city full of healthy gardens is a sustainable city full of happy people.  Each city in Minnesota has it’s own unique approach to sustainability.  In this volume of the Seed, we’ll have a look at two cities in the metro area to see some great examples of how local governments work with residents to incorporate all kinds of great gardening into their sustainability plans in order to grow happy, healthy cities.  


Homegrown food, local food, or food security, however you want to look at it, Minneapolitans' taste in food is rapidly



According to Gayle Prest, the city’s official Sustainability Director,

“Gardening is an integral part of the long term sustainability plan for Minneapolis”

With more then 100 community gardens and 33 farmers markets, this city is obviously hungry for healthy change.  Leading the charge for this change is an official city organization called

Homegrown Minneapolis

  which is dedicated to nothing less then building a healthy, local food system for all Minneapolis residents. 

Homegrown has recently been hard at work on an

Urban Agriculture Policy Plan

that will guide city land use decisions related to urban food production and distribution. The plan will help identify where and how land should be used to grow and distribute food through community and commercial gardens and urban farms.  In short, this new ag-plan will help Minneapolis scale up to the next logical step in urban food production.  By defining and allowing for urban farms, and market gardens, and by amending the zoning code to better accommodate urban agriculture this innovative plan will allow Minneapolis residents to have more control over their food choices, and more access to healthy homegrown food.

The time to support the Urban Ag Plan is now, call your

city council person


-Update: Your Support Helped Get This Passed!-

“The key to all of this is to start with deep rich organic soil made from our own compost”

Gayle reminds me as we talk about the city’s goal for having curbside residential compostable waste pick up by 2014.  This point is especially powerful as it shows yet another great way to improve our environment and our gardening habits at the same time.  When we compost we reduce the amount of garbage going to burners and landfills and we improve our garden soil, that’s the kind of sustainable solution we can all grow from. 


Oakley Biesanz, Naturalist for the City of Maplewood, explained to me some of the gardening strategies that are helping to grow a sustainable future for residents there. 

Maplewood is a statewide leader

in controlling water quality through

rain gardening


  With over 620 city installed rain gardens now thriving in residents yards, 60 more growing on city owned land and many more to come Maplewood is proving that rain gardens are an effective and beautiful way to keep waterways clean and healthy.  With the city’s support and promotion rain gardening has become the  standard for dealing with storm water run-off in Maplewood.

At the

Nature Center

where Oakley works, the mission is to enhance resident’s awareness and understanding of land, water and wildlife resources; to empower the community to become stewards of the environment. This mission is clearly evident in the Demonstration Gardens, which include rainwater gardens, woodland wildflower and prairie butterfly gardens and a small section of no-mow grass.

For lawn enthusiasts, Maplewood has developed the

Mow-Hi Pledge

This pledge to cut the grass no shorter then 3 inches and leave all the clippings on the lawn will help residents reduce fertilizer and watering costs and environmental impacts.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that there’s a grand prize drawing for folks who are willing to take the pledge. 

Community gardens

are sprouting up in Maplewood this spring as part of a multi-city effort to improve access to food growing space.  Working with the Maplwood-North St. Paul Parks and Rec. department, School District 622 and a local church, the two cities will now be able to offer over 650 community garden plots available to the public this spring.

In the long run, sustainability is just a common sense approach to life, and gardening is the simplest approach to sustainability that we have available. 

Whether you’re filtering rain water run off through rain gardens in order to keep the ground water, rivers, and lakes clean or keeping nutrients in your neighborhood by composting in your back yard, or maybe even growing your own food and medicine at home or with neighbors in a community garden, these are all among the most Earth friendly, community building habits humans can all share.  

It takes a village to raise a garden and no one should be left out of the process.  From youth to elders, from city council members to dirt gardeners, we all have a stake in helping to grow a sustainable city right where we live and we all need to work hard and connect with our community if we are going to see success.

Gardeners, take the opportunity this spring to think globally, garden locally and start to grow a sustainable city!

Compost, It's Hot!

These days it seems folks all around me are taking bold strides to “green up” their everyday lives.  Whether we’re motivated to reclaim our health from the abominable agriculture and healthcare industries, or take back our wealth from the robber barons of the big energy companies, all of us are awakening to the idea that it’s time we followed that sage bumper sticker advice and remember how to "live simply so that we may all simply live". 

Composting is one of the simplest things that I’ve ever learned.  As a designer of Earth friendly landscapes and organic gardens, part of my job is to help folks implement changes right outside their doors that positively impact the entire global ecosystem.  I routinely testify that there is no greater teacher of natural methods then nature itself.  

So what does nature tell us about compost? 

In nature there is no waste.  Any creature lucky enough to emerge from the muck is quickly turned back into muck upon death, at which point another creature feeds on the muck created by the first creature. When we compost we pay direct homage to this ancient cycle, and our gardens display the rewards of this environmentally respectful approach.  What I’m getting at here is that nature shows us that compost grows great plants.  Compost has always been the only sustainable means of creating fertility in soil.

Okay so enough about why we should compost, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

First of all, I’m through with black plastic compost bins. Ineffective, ugly, and misleading to folks, these bins are ridiculous.  We already know that the act of composting at home is a way of copying nature.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you found a black plastic compost bin on the prairie, or in the woods, or wetlands?  Compost happens in nature completely unaided and unhindered by plastic bins.  Instead all the parts of the trees, and plants grow up and then periodically or seasonally die off to fall loosely across an open area where the rain soaks the leaves, and the wind and animals stir the whole thing up.  After a good sit on the floor of the forest or prairie, a dead leaf or fallen apple becomes soil.  At home we copy this process, in an open air compost bin or compost pile we mix together our kitchen waste such as fruits and vegetables, coffee, egg shells, grains, and bread, with our yard waste such as leaves and grass cuttings.

This edition of The Seed is dedicated to the hundreds of folks who've asked me how they can make a functional, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing compost system at home.  Giving Tree

is proud to have partnered with another green thinker,

Margaret Wilke

to bring you a great gardeners thoughts on growing garden gold from garbage!

Garden How To :

home composting made easy

When attempting to adapt open air composting to the urban environment a little experienced advice can be handy.  I always describe the best urban composting system as the 4-Bin system that I learned from my friend

Margaret Wilke

.  Simply make 4 bins that are at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep each.  The bins should be made out of whatever re-usable construction materials you have around.  I love to use chicken wire and stakes because they’re cheap and breathable.  Make sure the sides of your bins allow for a lot of air flow, so if you make your bins out of wood leave a few inches of space between each board.  Situate your bins in a location that is easily accessible so you don’t feel like you’re going for a hike each time you bring a bucket of kitchen scraps out.

  If you are worried about ill-tempered neighbors or city inspectors, you could always plant raspberry bushes along the sides of your bins.  That way the bins will be disguised and you’ll have a peace offering to share with any disgruntled passers by.  Using your 4-bin system should look a little something like this:

Bin 1:

  This is a storage space for yard waste.

Bin 2

:  Whenever I’ve collected enough food waste in my kitchen scrap bucket I empty the bucket into Bin 2 and then I layer on a healthy dose of yard waste from Bin 1.

Bin 3

:  After Bin 2 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 3.

Bin 4

:  After Bin 3 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 4.

By the time you’ve layered and then moved your compostables from bin to bin a few times you’ve got yourself some real garden gold.  Feed your new plantings plenty of this fine homemade magic and watch them grow healthy and bountiful.  Give the entire garden a 2-inch layer of compost each spring in order to ensure a full season of growth.

Margaret talks compost


stands beside the compost system that she's been faithfully using for more then 20 years in the picture below.  Composting is one of Margaret's passions, and her wisdom rubs off on anyone who visits her gardens!

"Composting is one of my passions.

  I think it is because it is a kind of alchemy.  You can turn things that people normally throw away into GOLD!  Well, not real gold, but something as valuable as gold to anyone who gardens.  You would have to pay a lot of money to get the kind of enrichment for your soil that organic compost gives you, and my bet is it wouldn’t be as good, either for the garden or for the environment.

It all starts in the kitchen.

  We keep an old ice cream bucket with a lid handy in the kitchen sink. Everything that is plant based, that normally would go into the trash, winds up in the bucket instead.  Even with just two of us these days, my husband and I, we often have a bucket or more of material to take out to the compost heap every day, especially in the summer.  It makes us very aware of how much we are dependent on the products from the earth for our health and well being.  Food comes from somewhere, and it’s not the grocery store!  And plant material needs to go back into the garden to complete the God-given natural cycle that sustains life.

We compost as long as we can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. Actually, I should rephrase that. I compost as long as I can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. My husband just puts up with me.

Here’s what goes into the bucket from the kitchen:

All vegetable and fruit trimmings, skins, seeds, stems, leaves, etc.

Coffee grounds (very key because they have nitrogen that helps the compost “cook”)

Tea bags

Egg shells

Left over / day old / moldy bread products (no butter please!)

My family knows that Mom will have a fit if she finds a banana peel in the kitchen trashcan. Roses love bananas.

We add this kitchen mix to the compost pile daily and ALWAYS cover it with dry leaves or fresh green material such as garden trimmings and grass clippings (IF they are chemical free). It is amazing how fast those banana peels, potato skins, and broccoli stems break down and become completely unrecognizable! Eggshells take longer, so I generally try to break them up before putting them in the pile. If there hasn’t been rain for a while I occasionally water down the piles, but not very often. Once in a while I shovel some partially finished compost and/or garden soil over the top of everything to give it the microbes it needs to break down. That also ensures there are no odors from the pile for neighbors to complain about. Keeping the fresh additions from the kitchen COVERED is key to having an odor free pile. It keeps inquiring animals at bay as well. Also you won’t attract flies or bees when the fresh stuff is kept adequately covered.

Above, the compost process begins in earnest when kitchen scraps are mixed with yard waste in Bin # 1

A mix of green(kitchen waste) and brown (yard waste) materials is ideal. I use everything from the garden EXCEPT weeds with seeds. I have learned the hard way that weed seeds will make it through most backyard composting systems. These piles are not usually large enough to generate the high heat needed to kill weed seeds. I am also very careful about which spent flowers with seeds I put into my compost piles as well. Your garden will be entirely black-eyed susans, for example, or purple coneflowers if you put the flower heads with these seeds into your compost. I generally cut off the flower heads and then throw the stems and leaves into the compost. Otherwise I just pull up over-zealous plants when they’ve finished blooming and pile them in a dark corner under the evergreens in the back of the yard where they are out of sight. There they break down but don’t get enough light for the seeds to germinate.

Bins number 2 and 3 show us the various stages of waste becoming soil.  Bin number 3 below is full of healthy happy compost just waiting to spread its organic fertile magic!

As for brown material, hay without seeds will work, but is expensive. I have sometimes used oat straw that has seeds in it, the kind used for Halloween decorations, particularly if someone gives it to me free. If I’m sure the pile will be completely composted, then I feel okay about adding it to the compost pile. The sprouts of oat seeds from the straw are easily identifiable and pull up readily if a few of them make it through the composting process. But, I wouldn’t want them all over the garden, so I don’t use oat straw as mulch.

Once a summer I do a major turning of the piles. This is when a strong husband comes in handy. But I have done it myself, it just takes a little longer, since I have to do it a bit at a time, not all at once as hubby prefers (“Let’s just get it over with!”)

Margaret's compost system is the most functional home composting method that I've ever seen.  Notice how the posts are all slotted which makes moving and scooping the pile very easy.

Making compost in Minnesota has the advantage of the freeze / thaw process that helps break down organic matter without any help from you at all. It takes about a full season to make really good compost. Once you have the cycle started you can easily keep it going and will be supplied with compost pretty much throughout the growing season.

I have three compost bins that my husband built for me at least 20 years ago. They are about 4 feet across and 5' deep. They stand side by side with removable boards in the front of each bin, and also between the bins so that turning material from one bin to the next is not too difficult. I always keep fresh material separated from the 1/2 completed compost, and from the aged compost, so three bins are needed.

Once a bin is emptied by using the compost for potting-up spring plants or spreading it on the gardens, I turn the next most finished compost into it. This aerates the pile and gets it cooking. Then I turn the least finished compost into the just emptied bin and start a new pile. Composting fits naturally into the cycle of growing and life in the garden.

Try it you’ll like it!"

From the kitchen to the garden and back to the kitchen, Margaret's compost system is easy to build, fun to use, and it makes the best dirt around, just have a look at

Margaret's gardens

to see for yourself!